It’s Alive! Area History Lives On In Morgue Files

A pair of shiny, silver scissors sits nonchalantly on a shelf in a small, subway-tiled room. The blades are long—nearly nine inches, and razor-sharp.

These are the scissors your mother told you to never run with.IMG_4450

But don’t worry. They aren’t some murder weapon wannabe… they’re a relic left from the days when ladies bent over inky newspaper pages, meticulously cutting, cataloguing, and chronicling the people and topics mentioned in the area’s regional newspaper.

The small room those knife-like scissors call home is The Forum library, or “morgue.” Morgue files are the envelopes that contain clippings about people, places, and things published in a newspaper.

Prior to Halgrimson’s work, clippings were folded similarly and bound with string in subject matter bundles.

The morbid name is a newspaper term that emerged in the 1880s when articles and photos of particular people were collected and cataloged in case the biographical subject died suddenly and an obituary was needed; all pertinent information would be easily accessible. (Think about the sudden death of Robin Williams last year; a morgue file about his work made writing tributes to him much easier…and faster.)

Dianna Baumann, whose official title is News Assistant, refers to herself at the caretaker—not creator, mind you—of the library. The original work of creating a repository of information—and cataloguing all of it—fell to Andrea Hunter Halgrimson, a beloved long-time Forum employee who passed away in February. Baumann worked closely with Halgrimson, learning the techniques necessary to document thousands of pieces of information. No pressure.

For years, Halgrimson painstakingly created the library after inheriting “an archival disaster,” she said in a February 2015 Forum article.

Files were not organized in chronological order. Biography files were mixed with subject files. Sticky zinc half-column plates for mug shots were jumbled with clippings. Halgrimson imposed order on chaos, and added byline files to make it easier for writers to find articles they’d written.

Thanks to Halgrimson’s work, information is accessible to Forum reporters searching for background and context; sometimes, members of the general public have made requests for information, and Baumann said she’s had the privilege of locating information for community members that they weren’t able to find elsewhere in public archives.

“My priority is helping reporters, but if subscribers or other people are looking for information, I’m happy to help in my spare time,” Baumann said. She explained that she recently helped a man who, while serving in the Army, met a man who went to college in Moorhead and wanted to locate him. Through Baumann’s research in the newspapers and city directories, she was able to provide the man with information to connect the two men.

Clippings are organized in envelopes labeled by subject.

In an age where most people associate information with the internet, digitizing The Forum is a topic of constant discussion. Baumann said the cost to transfer all the information contained within the newspaper is a costly endeavor, and one that will continue to be considered especially as grants and projects like the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America make it more feasible.

“It makes me sad that people don’t value the information available to them,” she explained. “Going to Google is kind of a lazy way out.”

Not to mention the treasure that can be uncovered when someone takes the time to examine sources of information other than just the internet. Imparting the importance of learning how to find information elsewhere is often a Sisyphean task.  

Baumann perseveres regardless, and her diligence is rewarded by the reporters who seek her expertise. She’s the “knower of all things” and a gatekeeper of facts. One reporter utilizing the library mused that finding information in the files contained in the library is so much easier than trying to find it online. Plus, the library offers “way more information than that damn box on my desk can.”

The resources available in the library include:

  • IMG_4458
    Power File

    Power File: The biggest Rolodex you’ve ever encountered. Except no contact information is provided because the folders simply contain every newspaper
    article that mentions a particular
    person for whatever reason. The file includes articles from 1922 to 1995.* Reporters frequently consult the Power File for background on business owners, anyone charged with a crime, or well-known figures.

  • Oversize Files: An extension of the Power File, these overstuffed folders contain clippings about people whose names are published in the paper frequently, like elected officials, well-known business people, and local celebrities.
  • IMG_4451
    Card Catalog

    Card Catalog: Perhaps the last one still in existence anywhere…except the Library of Congress, perhaps. This tool helps individuals locate particular topics in the room as well as related subjects.

  • Microfilm Rolls: Square boxes containing rolls of micro-photocopied versions of The Forum, beginning in 1880. When stored and handled correctly, the shelf life of microfilm is more than 500 years. Fun Fact: Microfilm is printed on nitrate film, a highly explosive and flammable substance.
  • Byline Cabinets: Filing cabinets filled with folders labeled with Forum employees who have written articles for the newspaper.
  • Historic Mugs: Photos of famous people that have been taken by Forum photographers or gathered from the Associated Press.

    City of Fargo Directories
  • Miscellaneous: Forum Indexes, historical documents, city directories (dating back to 1893), Who’s Who in America, etc.

On a side wall in the library is a corkboard. On that corkboard is a nondescript postcard that asserts: A great library contains the diary of the human race.

In the case of The Forum library, it’s not the entire human race…just the history of the Fargo-Moorhead community and anyone fortunate enough to pass through at some point in time.

* For Halgrimson, June 30, 1995, was a dark day, Baumann explained. That’s when The Forum retired its clipping files and switched to an electronic archive. An online database is great, but pulling up a PDF pales in comparison to gingerly unfolding a brittle piece of newspaper that was clipped and filed nearly 100 years ago.

Having been built in 1926, the Forum Communications Company building has seen its share of renovations and updates. But the wooden door to the library and subway tile that line its walls are original—the remaining remnants of a near-90-year-old building that have been left untouched.

This article is a prelude to a series about people or places from the history of the Fargo-Moorhead area. You’ll learn about Fargo’s famous madam, the movers and shakers who are forever remembered in stone, as well as historic buildings that have found renewed purpose in a new century.

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  1. Pingback : AreaVoices | Danielle Teigen » Melvina Massey: Fargo’s Main Madam of Ill Repute

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